Balto. Co. officials have plan for mansion Selling, leasing Aigburth may save decaying site

February 02, 1996|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

Aigburth Vale, the deteriorating Towson mansion owned by the Baltimore County school system, may get a new lease on life.

After criticism from historic preservationists and county officials, school officials started the process yesterday of turning over the historic property to the county, school spokesman Donald Mohler said.

County officials say they might sell the building or lease it to nonprofit groups for a nominal fee.

But first, officials must find a new location for the Office of Adult hTC Education, housed at the once-elegant 1868 mansion that was the school system's central offices in the 1950s and 1960s. Then, they must take the matter before the school board for a vote.

Board President Calvin D. Disney said Aigburth's fate would be a new issue for the group. "I don't know that we've ever had any discussion on it. I don't know how the board will react," he said.

Aigburth was designed by architects John R. Niernsee and J. Crawford Neilson for John Owens, one of the nation's foremost comedic actors of the 19th century.

In its glory days, the magnificent 22-room mansion on a 300-acre farm was often the site of social gatherings for theatrical, literary and political figures. Owens, called the Bob Hope of his era, had a racetrack on what is now Towson High School.

After his death in 1886, his wife, Mary Owens, lost the estate, which was divided and sold.

The school system has owned Aigburth, including a smaller cottage and barn, since 1950.

But now the roof leaks, the ceiling is caving in and the paint is badly chipped.

In a Jan. 26 letter to the school superintendent, Towson Republican Councilman Douglas B. Riley noted the "deplorable condition" of the mansion. "It is my intent to oppose the use of any additional school funds to renovate a building which is not central to the mission of public education," he wrote.

Robert H. Chapman, deputy school superintendent, said school officials are aware of the problems at Aigburth.

"We've gone back and forth over the years with the dilemma of how to take care of the central offices and schools," he said. "Schools are always our priority."

Mr. Riley hopes the building can be saved if it is turned over to the county. He said it might be sold, leased or operated through some kind of partnership.

"I'd rather find someone who would take it for $1 a year, a nominal sum, and rehabilitate it," he said. This arrangement would apply to nonprofit groups. Prospective rehabbers could apply to the Maryland Historical Trust, which has a grant and loan program for such properties, he said.

But county Administrative Officer Mereen E. Kelly said, "If it's up to me, I'd call a real estate broker and sell it. That's what I'm going to recommend to the [county] executive."

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